In Residence at Angel Fire: A Reminder of the Symbiotic Relationship between Composers and Performers

Sometimes we need to take our foot off of the gas pedal, take a deep breath, and just put our trust in the miraculous abilities of our colleagues to do in live performance…what we have only imagined in our heads and on the written page.

By Daniel Temkin

I’m checking in with you from New Mexico, where I am the Young-Artist Composer in Residence during the 29th Season of the Music From Angel Fire Festival.  It is a tremendous honor for me to be here among so many incredible performers, and it is also special for me to be sharing this experience with some of my closest friends and colleagues from Curtis, who join me on this season’s Young Artist Roster.

Being here at the festival so far has been an interesting reminder for me of some of the differences between performing and composing, and I’d like to elaborate more on some of what I’ve been observing in the past week.

As you may or may not know, although I have been writing music since I was a teenager—whether it was pop songs or classical pieces—I actually began my musical career primarily as a performer, playing percussion very seriously and trying to perform with as many orchestras, chamber ensembles, percussion quartets, choirs, rock bands, or any other groups as I possibly could.  And although I was composing music this entire time, my outlook on the musical world was really seen through the perspective of a performing musician: my primary concerns were learning the notes on the page, keeping my chops in steady order, and consuming the voluminous amounts of repertoire that seemed to be perpetually winding up in my music folder (no matter how many concerts I finished or how many recitals I completed).

Now that I am working as a full-time composer (who occasionally still picks up the sticks to play through a piece by Jason T. Buchanan or Tonia Ko) I feel that I somehow have a broader set of obligations in my musical life.  It’s true that some things never change: like a performer who must “shed wood” to pick up the notes in the many pieces of music they are performing, I do still have to face the daily grind of putting notes to paper, and this is an arduous process, which requires time, a quiet space to think, a LOT of patience and determination, and usually (for me) a piano.  But this is only one aspect of what I do in order to stay at the top of my game as a composer.  To keep my mind sharp and musically engaged, I find myself spending lots of time studying other scores and listening to as many different pieces as I can.  And, I also find myself working for many hours each day just to try and schedule rehearsals and engagements so that my music can come to life in performance with real musicians and not just with MIDI playback on my computer!  (What a difference it is to be organizing the many details of printing out music, setting up a rehearsal schedule, and finalizing concert logistics with multiple musicians—as opposed to when I used to simply receive a phone call that specified when and where to show up with my snare drum for a gig, and what the dress code was!)

Now, this is not to say in any way that what I do as a composer now is more difficult, or more musically noble, than what my incredible colleagues do as performers.  I have so much respect and understanding for the many dedicated musicians who work for hours every single day to help bring my music (and other music) to life with precision and musicality in performance.  But what they do is vastly different from what composers do, and as I mentioned above, being here at Angel Fire has reminded so much of the different role composers must fulfill in the musical kingdom.

It seems to me that most of the differences I perceive essentially stem from one main factor: at the end of the day, it is the performers, NOT the composers, who must walk out on stage to bring the notes to life in real-time during a performance, and this fundamental difference substantially affects our respective mindsets and professional routines.

For composers, because we do not have physical control over the sounds produced in live performance, we spend immense amounts of time crafting our pieces prior to performance, structuring our musical ideas in such a way that they can be brought to life with efficiency and clarity.  This sort of process involves studying the orchestration of every instrument we are writing for; or asking our colleagues to play through passages, suggest bowings to us, or simply reassure us that what we have written can in fact be played.  We also often conduct through our own music, singing it aloud and trying to understand the psychology of a performer who will eventually be counting through the same passages we are.  Another major part of our routine involves spending countless hours meticulously notating our music with computer software and arranging our parts so the performers have ALL of the information they need to bring our music to life the way we have intended.  Again, these many activities all help prepare a piece of music to be as complete as possible prior to its actual performance in real-life, since as composers we will not actually be up on the stage making it happen.

And for instrumentalists, it is precisely because they are the ones who must perform in real life that their musical habits are shaped the way they are: performers focus on the minutiae of every dynamic or articulation marking that a composer has made; they study how each passage will be executed on their instrument (and they often resent composers who may have written an awkward passages that might make the performers look bad on stage!); and if performers consult a score, they usually study it in terms of their own singular contribution to the work as a whole, so that the physical motions they make on their particular instrument, will ultimately add to the larger texture.  These sorts of habits are nearly the opposite to those of composers, who cannot afford to only focus on the precise timbre and technique of one instrument, or to view the architecture of a piece in terms of one instrument’s contribution.  Instead, composers must take in an entire piece of art from a broad, encompassing, perspective, and then work methodically to fill in every minute detail in such a way that both performers and audiences can understand each particular aspect of the work.

I must confess, it can be scary for us composers after we write a double-bar line and print out the parts, because we have little say in what will happen after this point; it is the performers who will (hopefully) practice the music, organize the rehearsals, and play the performance.  But it is essential to understand that when composers write musical markings or instructions that seem highly-detailed and maybe even nit-picky, it is not necessarily because we are seeking control of a work after we have handed it off to players.  Instead, it has more to do with composers trying to give as much helpful indication as they can in a process, which by default, will exclude some of their own input in the very thing they are trying to create.  So whether it is through notation, or conducting a group from a score (rather than a part) to help the ensemble see the composite details, or adjusting orchestration in a rehearsal to clarify a texture, or even just sitting in the hall and checking for blend and balance, composers are (usually) just trying to ensure that by the time a work reaches an audience, its intended effect is inexorable.

The crucial thing for composers to remember, is that no matter how noble our intentions may be throughout the professional process, sometimes we need to take our foot off of the gas pedal, take a deep breath, and just put our trust in the miraculous abilities of our colleagues to do in live performance—with the bright lights shining, the adrenaline pumping, and the pressure mounting—what we have only imagined in our heads and on the written page.  We must respect how difficult it is to walk out on stage and deliver consistently time and again with both technical precision and deep musicality, and we must know that sometimes it is easier for performers to achieve what they are capable of without us breathing down their necks.

Such is the symbiotic and often complicated relationship between composers and performers; but as composers we should be truly grateful and supportive of our colleagues, who do everything in their power to bring our own music to life in the very best ways they are capable.

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1 Response to In Residence at Angel Fire: A Reminder of the Symbiotic Relationship between Composers and Performers

  1. tjb1982 says:

    Dan, congratulations on your residency. It sounds like you’re really doing well for yourself.

    I also think you’ve made some great points here. The symbiotic process is so key to this artform, but also very explicit. I think it’s interesting to think about how other types of artforms receive their performances and how that relates to the audience. Take someone reading literature, for example. It’s easy to put your finger on the audience in this case; the reader is the audience. But aren’t they also acting as performer, too? (Unless they’re being read to.) What is the nature of this performance vis a vis the relationship between musicians and their audiences?

    My friend Sarah, a poet, and I have talked about how her poetry can be seen as a collaboration between the author and the reader. The reader supplying the missing link between nonsense and meaning. To Sarah, I think, what the audience brings to the work is as important as the work itself. There is a sort of collaboration between the artist and the audience. And to me that sounds a lot like the “musicality” you mention above regarding performers. As composers, one problem we face is that we are twice removed from the conveyed meaning of our work in that we not only write the piece to be interpreted by performers (who can only bring sounds to the ears of listeners), but the listeners themselves bring their own set of tools to decode this train of thoughts. But without these tools our musical nonsense would carry no meaning at all. The potential for misinterpretation is so great that I’ve personally given up on trying to write “efficiency and clarity,” and instead have tried to embrace the chaos by treating every encounter with an audience as a social experiment of sorts. I spend a lot of time listening to early music and injecting my own broken interpretation of it into my own music for this very reason. I enjoy this glitchiness inherent in communication, including communication over distance in time.

    However, as fascinating as that is to me, my recent forays into computer music have some of their roots in the mistrust (and indeed sometimes trauma) that arises from bad performances, whether caused by my incoherent notations or just bad playing. There is a part of me that wishes to assert control, to tap directly into my musical intentions and throw out the middleman, so to speak. And what better tool than a computer for this kind of “efficiency and clarity”?

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